site banner

Small-Scale Question Sunday for February 25, 2024

Do you have a dumb question that you're kind of embarrassed to ask in the main thread? Is there something you're just not sure about?

This is your opportunity to ask questions. No question too simple or too silly.

Culture war topics are accepted, and proposals for a better intro post are appreciated.

Jump in the discussion.

No email address required.

Is there anything that you can only get from belonging to a religion that you can’t get from secular alternatives?

There are things that you can get from both religion and secular alternatives (such as moral guidance, community, solace). Is there something about religion that makes religion the better place to seek them?

This is not a small-scale question.

But anyway,

(1) An external motivation to act rightly. In the old internet-atheist days, there was lots of indignation at the perceived attitude of the religious that atheists can’t be good people. That was always a strawman, though. There are lots of good atheists. The question is why there should be. Penn Jilette famously protested that he doesn’t need religious belief to keep him in line, since he already rapes and murders everyone he wants to, it’s just that he never wants to. I admire his purity, and grant that in a society as decadent as ours rape and murder are less tempting than they might once have been. And maybe Penn Jilette has never reflexively blurted out a self-exculpatory fib, or fumed internally about some kid getting the last burger at a barbecue, but it would appear that a lot of people have, and it would be surprising if the rest of humanity had jumped straight to Einsatzgruppen and Congolese rape-battalions without passing through lower levels of immorality.

We can Euthyphro this all day but even setting aside questions of the One True Good, the loss of that external nudge has been disastrous. Law cannot fill the gap- there can be no law against selfishness or contempt, for example.

(2) A prescribed human identity. Religions tell people who they are. Muslim women know exactly what they are supposed to do. Orthodox Jewish men know exactly who they are supposed to be. Suicide bombers know. The vast majority of people are incapable of forming an identity from scratch. Religion offers/offered identities that had many drawbacks and did not adequately serve a lot of people, but they did the job for the vast majority. Among the truly religious, there is no self-expression-by-buying-tattoos, no retail therapy, no do-it-for-the-gram; indeed such narcissistic paroxysm is a sign that someone is on their way out of the religion. Religious people have/create lots of problems for themselves and others, but the defining problem of our age, lack of identity, is the result of the loss of religion. No such broadly effective alternative source of identity has yet appeared.

That seems like a kind of crazy way to look at it. Of course Penn hasn't wanted to do that. Because humans are by nature, compassionate tribal beings. It isn't because he is lucky enough to live in a time that allows him all nice things without killing children. It is because killing children doesn't feel good and serves no purpose. You don't need the pope to tell you that.

Humans are by nature animalistic tribal beings. Actually worse than animalistic, since animals don’t have the same imagination for creative evil that we do. No animal would come up with, “What is best in life? To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women.” Or if you think that’s unrealistically pessimistic, coming as it does from fiction, here’s a real quote: “Heaven brings forth innumerable things to nurture man. Man has nothing good with which to recompense Heaven. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill. Kill.”

The only reason people rise above their baser instincts is that they’ve been trained and civilized otherwise (and note that the civilizing process has been a long one, and there’s plenty of evidence that most of its advances can be undone in a short amount of time).

As for Penn’s specific examples, every man has more of a proclivity toward some sins than others. Perhaps he and you are just not naturally wrathful people. Plenty of others are. I’ll say for myself, I do not want to murder anyone right now. I do not want to murder anyone 99.999% of the time. I have, however, been so furious in the past that I have absolutely wanted to murder someone, particularly when I was younger and presumably more testosterone-filled than I am now. I never acted on those feelings, of course, but they were there.

I am reminded of C. S. Lewis’s introduction to the Screwtape Letters, where wrote that all he had to do to come up with the book was spend some time in serious introspection, thinking about all the ways in which his thoughts, temptations, and natural proclivities tended toward evil. If you really think people are kind, compassionate, and fundamentally good by nature, I’d suggest you’re probably just not introspecting hard enough.

C. S. Lewis is a great author. If you are halfway to his level you can think of 1000 evil things that could be done to a person. Being creative and having the capacity to think of evil scenarios has nothing to do with being good or evil at all.

Your outlook is pretty dark considering the trajectory the human race is on towards actual physical transcendence. Maybe I am typical minding it. But people who grow up in happy and healthy environments and that don't have genetic or environmental brain damage are not screaming KILL KILL KILL. Having an intrusive thought you don't act on doesn't make you a murderer in waiting.

There is a mediocre book out there somewhere that I read 20 years ago on a plane, a large part of the plot was a nano/serum that cured all defects and disease and restored body and mind to perfect genetic baseline human health. One of the antagonist's hitmen was a sociopath that was deathly afraid of getting hit with it as it would rob him of his sociopathy by fixing his brain. All problems are physical in the end, if you can fix a damaged brain you will fix the damaged person.

It appears that while some evils are the product of base human instinct, many are learned in civilization just as much as the "civilized" behaviour is. And it's not like civilization has been descended from above unto us. We didn't make up kind and compassionate behaviour when we became civilized - we learned to extend our natural kindness to a larger circle of people. And also, of course, to project our negative proclivities onto artificially constructed enemies.


With Markdown’s formatting for ordered lists:

1. An external motivation…

   We can Euthyphro…

2. A prescribed human identity…

I think you needed spaces after the periods.





  1. one
  2. two
  3. three

Reddit has exactly the same problem. Just use "(2)" instead of "2.".

Religion could never have given me that, at least. Thank you.